Karen Dabrowska

Alpine Coaster

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Bright green people movers transport visitors over deep chasms in the Kurdish mountains

The presence of ISIS on the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan devastated the pledging tourist industry. But it did not stop entrepreneur Hazem Kurda from adding unique specially designed toboggan like people movers to transport visitors around his one million square meter Pank resort in the mountains of Rwandiz.

Hazem Kurda

Hazem Kurda

Sitting on a wooden balcony that circles the large restaurant on his resort, Kurda admires the view of the majestic mountains, dismisses the terrorists with a wave of the hand and speaks confidently about the future. “They will not continue for several years. In six months they will be away from Kurdistan and Mosul will be liberated,” he says saddened that when the problem of ISIS is dealt with the Kurds could have issues with Shia militias.

The mountains, valleys, rivers and natural wonders of southern Kurdistan which the Kurds have turned into a haven of peace and stability in a country torn apart by sectarian strife and bloodshed, are a natural retreat from the heat and turbulence of a troubled land.

When he was 12 years old Kurda used to abscond from school, creep past the Iraqi guard posts keeping a watchful eye on his home town, sit on the edge of the canyon, throw stones into the water below and dream. Snakes and wolves were at home in the area and tigers lived in the mountains. “Someone could come here, invest a lot money and make a beautiful resort,” he mused.

That someone turned out to be Kurda himself. The refugee who left in 1980 and washed dishes in Sweden returned as a millionaire who made his money from a business he set up in 1985 to import brown rice into the EU. As soon as Saddam fell in 2003 Kurda was back in his beloved canyon. The site he remembered as a child was a rubbish dump with a thousand flies. “My wife said ‘you are crazy [to embark on a tourism project]. I replied ‘maybe – if I was wise I would never do it’.”

The government offered Kurda empty five-star hotels in Arbil to invest in but he was born in Rwandiz and believes that patriotism starts from your village. So the Pank resort was built in Rwandiz his home town with a population of 16,000. First the mines left by Saddam’s army had to be removed, then construction started and alpine-style chalets and manicured lawns appeared in the Kurdish mountains. Construction started in 2004 with four categories of accommodation ranging from small houses for $55 a night to fully furnished villas for $500 a night. The resort opened in 2007.

But Kurda is a man who never stops dreaming. He talks about a five-star hotel, restaurants, swimming pools, saunas, tennis courts, helipads and mini golf.

The latest dream to come true, which cost tens of millions, is a breathtaking ride in bright green people movers with two sections over deep chasms. Rwandiz is situated 1,000 metres on a narrow tongue of rock that slopes down from Korek mountain between the deep canyons of two rivers, then narrows and ends on a small plateau. It is on this plateau that Kurda developed the Pank resort and now the people movers, with doors which open automatically at various attractions, transport people around Pank.

Rawanduz (Photo: Patrick Dean)

Rawanduz (Photo: Patrick Dean)

Kurda developed the people movers in conjunction with the German Wiegand company innovators in alpine coaster products which guarantee a thrilling, scenic ride. The company’s founder, the late Josef Wiegand who died aged 80 in February 2014 visited, Rwandiz and adapted his products to the requirements of the Kurdish mountains.

After opening the Pank Resort hosted many high profile guests including former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, David Petraeus Commanding General of the Multi-National Force in Iraq and guests of the Iraqi president and prime minister who came by helicopter. The resort was a popular venue for Nowruz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations and welcomed American and European visitors. Many of the guests were Iraqi Arabs but very few residents from other Arab countries have come to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Business has now come to a virtual stand still but Kurda emphasises that tourists have nothing to be scared of in Kurdistan. “There has been no incidents involving foreigners in the past ten years. The Kurds have always regarded Westerners as their friends. People in the street welcome you to Kurdistan. You can walk from village to village and the people in the mountains will invite you to their homes. Kurdistan is a land of tolerance: Christians, Shias, Sunnis, Jews, Assyrians, Chaldeans and Shabaks are here.”

In Rwandiz the horrors of the civil war in Iraq and the atrocities of ISIS seem as distant as the cloudless horizon. “Nobody is sure how long we have been in these mountains but one thing is sure: We Kurds belong in these mountains. And everyone else should come and see for themselves. Just look at the beauty around us,” Kurda says as he works tirelessly to share the wonders of nature in Kurdistan with the rest of the world.